The Yardbirds, of course, were about music much more than image (which was one reason they never fully met the challenge of competing with the likes of rivals such as the Rolling Stones or the Animals, despite the presence in their lineup of three superstar guitarists). And as their bassist, Samwell-Smith was as much an architect of their music as anyone. He generated a distinctive sound with his bass, almost like a lead instrument on Smokestack Lightning and Here 'Tis from their classic 1964 concert album Five Live Yardbirds, and forming the foundation of the entire song on You're a Better Man Than I, against which Beck launches a searing lead guitar break. At its best, Samwell-Smith's bass work was nearly as prominent in the Yardbirds' music as John Entwistle's playing was with the Who -- indeed, just about the only reason he was never as highly regarded on his instrument as Entwistle became is because he left too soon, and because the Yardbirds didn't last too far into the era of serious rock criticism.
But once the Yardbirds moved into recording on a regular basis and started to write their own songs, Samwell-Smith began taking an even more prominent musical role in the band. He was the co-author (with McCarty) of the first original song they ever released, Still I'm Sad, which also showed a serious advance from the basic blues they'd started with or the pop/rock they'd hit with. That three-minute song managed to embrace elements of pop, raga-rock, and progressive rock, in a manner that was not only coherent but downright appealing, for all of its oddness -- despite a chorus seemingly built on Gregorian chant, it became a popular favorite as a B-side, and on the LP (Having a Rave Up) put together by the group's American label for the U.S. market. And Samwell-Smith, Relf and McCarty shared the writing credit on the single Shapes of Things, which was a major hit for the band and pushed them not only further in the direction of psychedelia than they'd previously gone, but also into what would eventually be defined as heavy metal. And when it came time for the group to record their first studio album, The Yardbirds (called Over Under Sideways Down in America, and since renamed Roger the Engineer), Samwell-Smith served as the producer, managing the recording process and having the final word on arrangements and the overall sound of songs, in addition to writing or co-writing much of the album.
That album was a success, critically and commercially, but it also marked the end of Samwell-Smith's tenure with the band. He had tired of the grind of touring, and also of some aspects of other members' behavior on the road. Even before serving as producer on The Yardbirds, he had produced a single, You Stole My Love b/w Skat Skat, by the Mockingbirds, a Manchester-based band whose ranks included composer Graham Gouldman, for Immediate Records. His experience producing the album had only confirmed the desire to move into that area of the business, and he had left the group by the time The Yardbirds was released. His exit created a gap that was extremely difficult to fill -- really good bassists weren't easy to find, especially as permanent members, and his instrument had always played a big role in their sound. Session guitarist Jimmy Page -- who'd previously turned down the chance to replace Clapton -- was brought in and played bass initially, but it soon became clear to all concerned that his real forte was the guitar, and the four-stringed instrument was an awkward fit for him. Finally, Chris Dreja switched from rhythm guitar to bass (which, it turned out, he actually preferred playing) and Page took his place alongside Beck in a double lead guitar configuration that lasted for a short (but glorious) time before the latter's exit.
Meanwhile, Samwell-Smith jumped into producing with both feet. Among his earliest productions was a single by fledgling folk-rocker Al Stewart, The Elf b/w Turn Into Earth, the latter a cover of a song that Samwell-Smith had written for the Yardbirds and used on their album. He also produced recordings by Barry Mason (Over the Hills and Far Away b/w Collection of Recollections), the Washington D.C.'s (Seek and Find b/w I Love Gerald Chevin the Great), and ex-Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones (And the Sun Will Shine b/w The Dog Presides, on which he also played bass, while Paul McCartney played the drums and Jeff Beck sat in on guitar). He returned to work with his former bandmates Relf and McCarty, producing their post-Yardbirds group Renaissance. And by 1970, he had emerged to the front ranks of his field, working with Cat Stevens, then a pop singer-turned-folkie -- starting with Mona Bone Jakon (1970), and through this breakthrough records Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, both of which were huge hits around the world and yielded a string of hit singles, he handled the production on all of Stevens' work across the boom years of the latter's career, up to and including Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974) (co-produced with the artist). Samwell-Smith subsequently worked with such top-ranked talent of the time as Carly Simon (Anticipation, Spoiled Girl) and Jethro Tull (Broadsword and the Beast), as well as up-and-coming acts such as Amazing Blondel (Evensong). His other credits during the 1970s and 1980s included singles for Murray Head and Kate Anna McGarrigle. And in 1983, Samwell-Smith returned to playing with Box of Frogs, a reunion of the core Yardbirds lineup that yielded an album and a fair amount of international press. He also periodically worked in films, producing the music for #Postcards from the Edge (1990) and the mini-series #Relative Strangers (1999). Throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, Samwell-Smith took an active role in the licensing and reissue of The Yardbirds and related recordings that were still owned by the members of the band -- as distinct from their earlier recordings, which ended up in the hands of Charly Records, and their subsequent sides, which were the property of EMI Records. It was partly as a result of the desire by Samwell-Smith and the others to protect and secure the part of the group's legacy that they controlled, that their particular end of their catalog was better represented -- and generally in better quality -- than any other part of their history. He was not part of the 2002 Birdland album recorded by the re-formed Yardbirds, but he was acknowledged, along with Clapton, Beck, Page, et al., in the dedication. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
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